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(New York) – Burundi government officials should halt their intensifying pressure on journalists, Human Rights Watch said today. In the last few weeks, journalists have been summonsed by state prosecuting authorities for questioning with increasing frequency in response to radio broadcasts implicating state agents in alleged human rights abuses.

Senior government officials, including three ministers, have stepped up public warnings against the media in recent days, threatening them with legal action, and hinting they could be accused of criminal offenses such as inciting public disobedience and hatred. Threats escalated following reporting restrictions imposed after a mass killing in Gatumba on September 18, 2011.

“We are deeply concerned about the recent escalation in intimidation against the news media in Burundi,” said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “This assault on the free press makes it practically impossible for journalists to carry out independent investigations and reporting.”

About 40 people were killed by armed assailants in the September 18 attack in a bar in Gatumba, about 15 kilometers from the capital, Bujumbura. The authorities imposed a 30-day media blackout on these events, as well as on other cases under investigation. The ban was briefly defied by some members of the media, but most eventually complied.

Once the 30-day deadline had passed, some radio stations started to run programs about the massacre. In particular, African Public Radio (Radio Publique Africaine, RPA) broadcast an interview with one of the accused, Innocent Ngendakuriyo, who was contacted in prison and claimed that state agents may have been involved in events which led to the Gatumba killings.

On November 8, Bob Rugurika, editor-in-chief of RPA, and Patrick Nduwimana, editor-in-chief of Radio Bonesha FM, received a summons to appear before the Bujumbura public prosecutor’s office and were questioned in connection with these programs.

In the last few days, statements by senior government officials have heightened the tension. On November 11, the National Security Council issued a statement, delivered by Defense Minister Pontien Gaciyubwenge, accusing certain members of the media and civil society of flagrantly violating the blackout on coverage of the Gatumba massacre and calling on the government to enact sanctions against them quickly.

“These threatening statements appear designed not only to intimidate journalists, but to increase pressure on them to either change their editorial line or face closure and possible imprisonment,” said Bekele. “These warnings seem to be laying the ground for the government to use the law to silence journalists.”

On November 10, Nduwimana of Radio Bonesha FM, Eric Manirakiza, director of RPA, and Vincent Nkeshimana, director of Radio Isanganiro, received a summons to appear before the public prosecutor’s office and were questioned about the funding sources for their radio stations. On November 14, RPA received a letter from the interior minister directing it to provide annual activity reports and financial documentation within 10 days.

The minister’s letter also accused RPA of departing from its original objectives. It stated that instead of being a tool for social cohesion, the radio station was being used “to discredit institutions, undermine the legitimacy of the judiciary, accuse individuals gratuitously, incite the population to hatred and disobedience and promote a culture of lies.”

On November 14, Rugurika and Bonfils Niyongere, a journalist for RPA, received a summons from the public prosecutor’s office. They were released after around 10 hours of questioning about their reporting of an incident at the University of Bujumbura on October 16 in which police had raided the university campus and two students were killed. Niyongere had been briefly detained by police based at the university on November 6. He was accused of holding illegal meetings at the university, while Rugurika was accused of creating disturbances at night. It was the eighth time in four months that Rugurika had been called in for questioning.

On November 15, four radio stations – Renaissance, RPA, Radio Bonesha FM, and Radio Isanganiro – asked members of the public to honk their car horns for 15 seconds at 12:20 p.m. to protest political violence and the muzzling of journalists. Police in Bujumbura noted the license plate numbers of cars that took part in this small demonstration. The next day the radio stations received a letter from the minister of telecommunication, information and communication informing them that this action was regarded as an “attack on public peace.” The minister told them that anyone who published information relating to cases under investigation would be dealt with according to the law.

“First the authorities made it almost impossible for journalists to do their work,” Bekele said. “Then certain state authorities publicly accused radio stations of inciting hatred. Now even modest attempts at civil protest are being met with threats. This constant harassment is severely restricting the freedom of the media.”

Burundi’s government has harassed and intimidated journalists for several years, often accusing journalists as well as civil society activists of working in league with political opposition parties.

Jean-Claude Kavumbagu was jailed in July 2010 for an article in which he questioned the state’s ability to respond to potential terrorist attacks. He was acquitted of the initial charge of treason but found guilty of “threatening the national economy,” a negative precedent given that no journalist had ever been convicted of such a crime. He was released in May. Three other journalists were arrested in mid-2010 and held for short periods.

In May, Patrick Mitabaro, editor-in-chief of Radio Isanganiro, was accused of “disseminating information that may affect the security of the state” after broadcasting an interview with an exiled opposition leader. He was not charged.

Members of civil society have also been subjected to repeated summonses in 2010 and 2011. In late August, President Pierre Nkurunziza warned that civil society organizations should be “on guard” in a response to their criticism of state pressure on journalists, lawyers and civil society activists.

Pierre-Claver Mbonimpa, president of the human rights organization Association for the Protection of Human Rights and Detained Persons (APRODH), and Gabriel Rufyiri, president of the Anti-corruption and Economic Malpractice Observatory (OLUCOME), have been questioned by the public prosecutor’s office on numerous occasions, but not charged. In September the line of questioning included allusions to the two men being implicated in the 2009 assassination of the former vice-president of OLUCOME, Ernest Manirumva.

Lawyers have also been harassed and several arrested. François Nyamoya, a lawyer who was arrested on July 28, is still in detention.

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